LIVING FOSSIL: Did you know that Ginkgo biloba is the only species remaining of a genus dating back 270 million…

LIVING FOSSIL: Did you know that Ginkgo biloba is the only species remaining of a genus dating back 270 million years to the Permian era (before the time of dinosaurs)? Once widespread, they shrank in distribution around 2 million years ago to a tiny area of central China. Originally thought to be extinct, there is speculation that the existing trees were planted and preserved by Chinese monks over thousands of years, because they are genetically so uniform.  Extremely slow growing, some trees are >2,000 years old.

Ginkgo evolved before flowering plants. There are separate male and female trees. The female has “naked” ovules (hence the term gymnosperm).  Pollen deposited on the ovules contains motile sperm armed with thousands of flagella. The seed that develops contains butanoic acid, which gives it the smell of butter (unfortunately, rancid butter) and caproic acid which has been charmingly likened to “old gym socks”. Despite this, they are cooked into congee and Buddha’s Delight. Thought to have aphrodisiac qualities, the seeds contain ginkgotoxin that can cause seizures.

More images/videos on this site: http://kwanten.home.xs4all.nl/ovule.htm

I liked this 5 minute video, in Japanese, showing swimming sperm: http://cgi2.nhk.or.jp/school/movie/bangumi.cgi?das_id=D0005100132_00000

Ginkgo extracts are thought to have memory boosting and anti-dementia properties from flavonoid glycosides and terpenoids. Clinical trials, unfortunately, show conflicting results.  See Wiki for a summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba

IMAGE: Kevin Staff made this lovely companion gif to accompany the networked leaf on the You’re So Vein post. Note that the ancient Ginkgo leaf is susceptible to damage in the central vein as seen by the block in fluorescent dye flow. Contrast this to the more evolved modern leaf with its efficient, recursively looped network (http://goo.gl/Xz8iT).

Early submission for ScienceSunday curated this weekend by Robby Bowles , Chad Haney and special guest curator Rich Pollett while I am traveling.

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65 Responses to LIVING FOSSIL: Did you know that Ginkgo biloba is the only species remaining of a genus dating back 270 million…


  1. No wonder Gingko is supposed to have memory boosting powers. It’s own DNA has a lot to remember.

  2. Eric Scott says:


    The fruits have much more of the awful smell than the seeds themselves.  Pan roasted, the seeds are still a little cheesey tasting, but in a much more pleasant way than the fruits smell.

  3. Rajini Rao says:


    LOL, Leland Beaudrot ! As for the rest of you, that was a rhetorical question 😀


    (I once raised my hand in class when a Prof posed a rhetorical question. He got a bit confused and thrown off stride. I see what you guys are doing to me).

  4. Liz Krane says:


    Wow, I had no idea gingko was this old! It’s fun to say, too. 😉 Gingko gingko gingko.

  5. Rajini Rao says:


    Also biloba biloba biloba 🙂


    Ah, so cooking mellows the smell. Thanks, Eric Scott .

  6. Jean Liss says:


    My neighbor has a giant Gingko tree and the fruit makes quite a mess (and smell), but there are a few people who come by and harvest the fallen fruit for Chinese medicine purposes.

  7. Rajini Rao says:


    I hope they do a good job of the extraction, Jean Liss . From my reading, there are both toxins and potentially therapeutic compounds in the seed.


    Technically, the fleshy part of the seed is just the seed coat and not the fruit since the ovule (egg) is naked 🙂

  8. Jean Liss says:


    I once tried to ask one of the ladies picking up the berries what she did with them but she was only able to say “Chinese Medicine” in a very thick accent…  but I see her walking around my block all the time, so if she is using it on herself, she doesn’t look any worse for wear…


  9. Goethe has written a nice poem about gingko biloba; its leave represented east and west for him.

  10. Rajini Rao says:


    Oh, do you have a link for that, Marja Oilinki ? Thanks!

  11. Jim Carver says:


    Rajini Rao Yeah you have to pick your solvent carefully. I think we used methyl or ethyl acetate, maybe a 50/50 blend.  But don’t hold me to it, it been a long time. We lost a lot of stuff in a man-made flood.


    Thuja I know, that’s easy, just use cheap vodka. That has the proper polarity for that process. It will work, although that’s not what we used commercially. 

  12. Eric Scott says:


    Rajini Rao, I don’t know if it’s the cooking so much as just removing the flesh of the fruit.

  13. Rajini Rao says:


    Clever poem! Thanks for the link, Jean Liss .


    Now I know to remove the peel, Eric Scott 🙂 I’ll check in my local Asian stores in case they have a stock of Gingko seeds.

  14. Rajini Rao says:


    Thank you for that background information and translation, Marja Oilinki . Amazing what one learns every day on G+.


  15. I have tried to translate this poem into Finnish as it has a personal meaning to me.

  16. Chad Haney says:


    I will echo that they stink like nobody’s business. There are a lot of them along the street I walk to work on. I’d like to know who had the wise idea to plant so many of them, along my route. This is a classic example of, what ancestor thought, hmm, this god awful stinky thing is probably good for me. I think I’ll make a cuppa tea out of it.


    I like the visual display for snake oil here:


    http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/play/snake-oil-supplements/

  17. Eric Scott says:


    Yeah, I think when you get them in the store they already have the flesh removed. I harvested mine from the ground around a female ginkgo at university of Illinois. I wore gloves and squished all the goopy rotten cheese smelling flesh off, then parboiled the nuts, shelled them, and pan-fried the seeds inside with just a little salt. They are really pretty—they look like jade. The texture is a little waxy and the flavor is a bit odd. It was a fun project though for sure.

  18. Rajini Rao says:


    I thought the street trees were supposed to be all male? That’s how city planners take into account messy trees. Wait…is it the other way around for pollen? I guess too much of anything is a stinky idea.


    As for your infographic…very nice. But boo on the resveratrol 😉

  19. Jim Carver says:


    I don’t remember anything about the smell. Our seeds were already processed and then we ground them. After that, all you smell is the acetate. Fruity yuckiness. 🙂

  20. Eric Scott says:


    Yeah, they should all be male. Both universities I’ve attended had at least 1 female though. I don’t know if it was a mistake or if they were planted for educational reasons. You can find the females with your nose when they are fruiting. (or by the swarm of Asian grandma harvesting the seeds around the base of the tree)

  21. Jim Douglas says:


    Of course I had to google that, Rajini Rao; I didn’t even know that trees had genders (can’t say I’ve ever given it a lot of thought).  http://www.canada.com/Domination+male+trees+creates+sick+urban+society+says+horticulturalist/6361347/story.html


    “Most North American cities plant more male bushes, trees and plants than their female counterparts. They do this because pollen-producing male trees don’t bear fruit or make seeds that drop on the ground the way female trees do.”


  22. Rajini Rao, shouldn’t the sentence, ‘Originally thought to be extinct, there is speculation that the existing trees were planted and preserved by Chinese monks over thousands of years because they are genetically so uniform’ actually be, ‘Originally thought to be extinct, there is speculation that the existing trees were planted and preserved by Chinese monks over thousands of years, because they are genetically so uniform’? Without the comma after ‘years’ it is saying that the monks knew about genes.

  23. Chad Haney says:


    So here’s one site that explains that some nurseries graft male and female trees. In some cases the male grafted tree can revert back to female. I remember reading the hemp can change gender so it’s plausible. http://goo.gl/JlUbi

  24. Rajini Rao says:


    You are grammatically correct, Oh Nobilangelo Ceramalus ! Editing asap. Commas can make the difference between life and death.


    I am going to eat Grandfather.


    I am going to eat, Grandfather.

  25. Rajini Rao says:


    Chad Haney , that might explain the stinky streets indeed! But why did they graft the male on to the female in the first place? Are the female trees sturdier?

  26. Jim Carver says:


    Chad Haney But with Cannabis the whole plant doesn’t change sex…it only grows shoots that are male. The rest of the plant is still female. The reverse does not happen. Male plants produce male flowers and you do not have female flower shoots in this case.

  27. Rajini Rao says:


    And we thought humans were kinky? 😛

  28. Chad Haney says:


    Rajini Rao I tried to search more about grafting but got sidetracked before anything substantial came up.


    Jim Carver seems quite knowledgeable about hemp aphrodite. :~)

  29. Rajini Rao says:


    Googling grafting is well and beyond the call of duty, so thank you for that valiant effort Chad Haney . How do those plant tissues stitch back together so seamlessly, wish we could do that for our nerves and blood vessels. Yeah, that Jim Carver has been experimenting with botanicals, I’m guessing 😉

  30. Jim Carver says:


    Chad Haney I’ve always loved botany, I had a great Prof. of Botany at Denver and she loved geology, so we got along great. 🙂

  31. Jim Carver says:


    Rajini Rao I think the key to that lies in the fact that plant cells are not as differentiated as animal cells. Parenchyma cells, for example can often differentiate into any other cell type as needed. Some of the other cell types can do this also, to a more limited degree.


    So I guess plants are just more flexible.

  32. Rajini Rao says:


    I like that theory, Jim Carver . I’m not enough of a plant developmental biologist (or for that matter, animal developmental biologist) to know much more. Judy Bauer , thanks. I really had no idea that Gingko was such a prevalent street tree in urban areas. It sure is not found in Maryland suburbia. Perhaps the urban planners wisened up to the problems of planting Gingko. 

  33. Jim Carver says:


    Yep, that’s why the research in stem cells is so vital, sigh .


  34. Have a good trip Rajini Rao & Allison Sekuler 

  35. Rajini Rao says:


    Thanks, Sakis Koukouvis . I’m looking forward to one week of science, science and more science 😉

  36. Rajini Rao says:


    Yes, absolutely, I agree with your sentiment david rossouw . Plants did need to evolve for oxygen-dependent life to take hold. The chemicals in plant life hold many keys to our health and longevity. The only issue is to separate out myths from reality in commercial supplements. While that is all being sorted out, why not consume whole spices, herbs and plants in judicious mixes with other things.

  37. Jim Carver says:


    Practically all drugs originally came from plants. There are a few exceptions but not that many. The argument that these are worthless supplements is just ridiculous and shows a lack of understanding. Chemists don’t make drugs, they copy them.


    The only thing about using herbs is you have to think about what you are doing. For some, this can be daunting.

  38. Eric Scott says:


    Jim Carver , I agree with you that herbal remedies are not “worthless”, however, they are not regulated or tested with the same rigor as pharmaceuticals (at least not in the USA) and are not required to provide the same types of warning labels to consumers because they are regulated by a different agency.  That leads to a lot of misinformation and misuse of these supplements and they can sometimes cause more harm than good.


    They DEFINITELY require thinking before use.


    Also, an herbal supplement contains a mixture of chemicals, while pharmaceuticals contain just one.  This can make it more difficult to predict how an herbal supplement can affect different people in different ways.

  39. Norman M. says:


    The posting and discussion are informative, there is a female ginko tree at a college I used to walk my dogs, now I got a recipe for roasted ginko, thanks!

  40. Rajini Rao says:


    Let us know if you do cook/eat Gingko seeds, Norman Ma !

  41. Jim Carver says:


    Funny thing I was thinking about the smell. Since this species of organism predates humans by at least 268 million years, do you think it gives a damn about what we think it smells like?

  42. Rajini Rao says:


    Hehe, well, it is at our mercy now that we’ve done such a good job of depleting natural habitats 🙂 I read somewhere that the smell was to attract pollinators (not human, of course).

  43. Jim Carver says:


    Rajini Rao I think it would be impossible for humans to live in the Mesozoic, or even survive for a short period. I don’t think time travel is possible to there, unless you have a bio-suit. Can you imagine what it would smell like? not to mention all the microbes for which we have no immunity. Hot, humid and steamy as hell with large predators that would just consider a monkey a snack.


    These were the scents of the day. We would have to wait for a very long time to find something we would call pleasing. Jasmine had to wait.

  44. Chad Haney says:


    Eric Scott my friend is now in charge of supplements at the FDA. He is trying to address the issue of consistency in dose and formulation with some of the more common/popular supplements. 


    Jim Carver the new trend is not to focus on extracting or mimicking the active ingredient in a herbal “remedy” but to find/design compounds that fit the target site. The target site could be an enzyme, amino acid binding site, cell surface protein, etc.

  45. Jim Carver says:


    Chad Haney Makes sense, all we had was sledgehammers in those days.

  46. Chad Haney says:


    A buzzword in my area of research is “theranostics”, i.e., agents that are both therapeutic and diagnostic. An example, is an imaging agent that identifies a cancer cell by some targeting agent and binds to a particular site that makes it therapeutic as it delivers some drug.

  47. Chad Haney says:


    BTW, my dog eats the ginkgo “fruit”. Does that make her smart because it’s supposed to increase oxygenation in the brain or stupid because it stinks so bad?

  48. Chad Haney says:


    Feisal Kamil that’s true. Some smells that are horrible to us are not so with other species.

  49. Chad Haney says:


    Oh yea, my wife likes durian and I like “stinky” cheeses.

  50. Chad Haney says:


    Mark Bruce must have been token ring.


  51. Great post Rajini Rao (although there were many unknown words!) and super interesting gifs Kevin Staff!


    The gingko leaf is the symbol of Metropolitan Tokyo, so you see (and smell) the trees and the leaf symbol everywhere.


    Example from my photo album: https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/115244822505211094728/albums/5630292464370965937/5630310375245847794

  52. Rajini Rao says:


    Thanks for sharing that elegant symbol of the Gingko leaf, Jonas Neergaard-Nielsen . Did I unleash a barrage of botanical verbiage on you? Sorry! 🙂


  53. By a rough count, 10 to me hitherto unknown words Rajini Rao 😀


  54. Further proof that the boundary between the animal and the plant is very blurry…That said, this reminds me the baobab tree, the famous africain bottle tree that can live likewise thousands of years…I feel  SO minute facing these nature giants


    Rajini Rao  In terms of female choice as a support of the graft, it may be because the female trees tend to be rounder and more compact than the male specimens which are more slender and then graft a male on a female would allow the tree to well stand the first years of its life that seem to be difficult.


    Other finds:


    1) – The reason why there are few female ginkgo trees in cities is that when autumn comes, the fruit rots, which emits a strong unpleasant.odor.


    2)- The first Gingko Biloba was discovered in 1690 by Engelbert Kaempfer – a German naturalist and physician-  in Japan where it was planted (and worshiped ) near temples .Then discovered in China ( * in the wild * ) in the province of Che-kiang.


  55. I have Gingko biloba for my vertigo at times Rajini Rao 🙂


  56. i can go through your page injoying it because i have not traveled far wide

  57. Mayukh Ghosh says:


    it’s Ginkgo biloba.

  58. Chad Haney says:


    Funny how no one saw the typo until now.

  59. Mayukh Ghosh says:


    how should I know? should have seen long ago..

  60. Mayukh Ghosh says:


    thanks Peter Lindelauf..

  61. Rajini Rao says:


    Mayukh Ghosh , thanks! Edited, in the main post..anyway. It’s misspelled all down the thread by everyone, with the exception of just one person. I think that’s because it “looks right”, both ways and the eye does not pick up the difference in patterns 🙂


  62. Thought this was about jumping spiders I didn’t get to see me spiders jumping just maybe the first two and that was that maybe liar false advertisement thanks.

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